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when vs happen
(Advanced Discussion)

Dr. Bill-
I know that I use the sign HAPPEN rather than WHEN at times, and I know when to use each, but I can't explain why I do to my students.  Could you help me out?
I think that I tend to use WHEN when I am being time specific and HAPPEN for a more general time period, but I can't figure that out for sure.


Use "HAPPEN" for English meanings similar to: occur, take place, befall, materialize, result, come about.  HAPPEN is a way of stating "something is being done," "something will be done," or "something was done."

Notice also the similarity between the sign HAPPEN and the initialized concepts: "CHANCE" and "place a BET."

Use "HAPPEN" for English phrases similar to, "When I met her I fell in love." The reason is that in such a sentence the word "when" is an abreviated form of the phrase "when it so happened."  Here is a guideline:  If you could extend that sentece to say, "When it so happened that I fell in love with her..." then it is a safe bet to use the sign HAPPEN to express the meaning.

Also use "HAPPEN" for statements like, "When you go, I want you to take your brother."
That is because what you are really saying is, "When such and such happens, I want you to take your brother."

So we can see that "HAPPEN" is a statement of occurrence.  Occurrences can become references for time--but only in context.  Which is to say, HAPPEN is not an indicator of time unless those involved in the conversation have a mutual understanding that a certain occurrence coincides with a particular clock or calendar time.  HAPPEN DAD ARRIVE HOME, WE GO RESTAURANT.  If everyone in the house knows Dad gets home at 5:30, then there would be no need for anyone to ask "WHEN?"

HAPPEN is expressed as either a statement or a question.
If a person signs "HAPPEN [done with a furrowed brow and a forward thrust of the head] it can be interpreted as "What happened?"

The sign labeled "WHEN" is used to seek information regarding clock or calendar time. 

The sign "WHEN" is usually expressed as a question: WHEN-"whq" [done with a furrowed brow].

It is occasionally used to make statements like "I don't-KNOW WHEN-(neutral)," but could easily be replaced by, "I don't-KNOW TIME" or "I don't-KNOW DAY." 

Language is ever changing.  It is my observation that more and more ASL users are using the sign WHEN as a statement similar to the way HAPPEN is used.  A person could say that this is an erroneous usage - but it will only be an "error" until enough people use it in that manner for a long enough period of time.  At some point the new usage may become "standard."  Time will tell.


Dr. Bill


WHEN:  Sometimes "when" is used as a question to ask "at what time?"

Sometimes "when" means "the time."
For example, "I don't know when," equals "I don't know the time that something will happen."

Sometimes "when" means "in the future."
A phrase such "When I go college I will learn ASL," would best be signed as: FUTURE I/ME COLLEGE I/ME LEARN ASL…"

Sometimes "when" means "while" or "during."  A phrase such as "When I was at college I learned sign" would best be signed with "DURING I/me COLLEGE I/me LEARN SIGN."

Sometimes "when" means "takes place at that time."  That also can mean "happened." If you were to interpret an English phrase in which the speaker intended to use "when" to mean "takes place or took place at that time" -- the best sign to use in ASL is "HAPPEN"  
"During the time that I was at college I learned ASL" -- "HAPPEN I/ME COLLEGE I/ME LEARN ASL."


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All material copyright © 1996 by Dr. William Vicars